Proposed Canadian Investment in U.S. WGS System Raises Questions

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VICTORIA, British Columbia The Canadian Forces hope to have in place by the end of the year an agreement under which they would provide funding for the U.S. Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) communications program in exchange for access to bandwidth from the growing constellation. 

Canadian space industry sources say negotiations now under way would see Canada contributing funding for the ninth satellite in the series.  The cost is expected to be around 477 million Canadian dollars ($477 million) but it is unclear whether that price tag includes ground terminals. 

Canada’s Defence Department declined to comment on the Mercury Global project, the name assigned to its proposed involvement in the WGS program. But according to an Oct. 6 directive from the Privy Council a decision-making body composed of senior civil servants Canada’s Cabinet gave Defence Minister Peter MacKay authorization to make a payment to the United States not to exceed 477.4 million Canadian dollars “concerning the Joint Production, Operations, and Support of Wideband Global Satellite Communications.” 

A 2010 Canadian military space strategy report obtained notes that the Mercury Global project is expected to begin in 2014 and continue over the following six years. Industry Canada, a federal department involved in the Mercury Global project, noted in a brief description on its website that the procurement process will involve both a space and a ground segment. The ground segment will provide stationary and transportable terminals, Industry Canada states. 

Parliament, however, was not told of the government’s intent to invest in the U.S. system, and opposition members objected Oct. 27 to the secrecy surrounding the deal. New Democratic Party defense critic David Christopherson said he has concerns about Mercury Global because of the cost and the lack of details. “There are a whole host of questions about this initiative that we’re not getting answers on,” he said in an interview.

But Julian Fantino, Canada’s associate minister of national defence, said Canada’s military efforts in Afghanistan and Libya have shown the need for systems to allow for the exchange of information between headquarters and deployed forces. “Space continues to be an important part of the global security environment, and the Canadian Forces space-related activities are an essential component of a robust defense for Canada and North America,” he said in the House of Commons Oct. 27.

Fantino did not provide specific details about the project.

In an April 2010 interview, Col. Andre Dupuis, head of the directorate of space development in Canada’s Department of National Defence, said military planners were looking at options for ensuring that they have satellite bandwidth available when and where they need it without being held hostage to the spot market for commercial capacity.

“Trying to acquire satcom at the last minute as you are going into a theater of operations is extremely expensive,” Dupuis said. 

At the time, the Mercury Global project was looking at placing small payloads in military bandwidths on commercial satellites, as well as at partnerships with other governments interested in military bandwidth availability, he said. 

Canada still needs a way to ensure the availability of bandwidth for communications that do not need a high level of protection, Dupuis noted. 

Defence Department officials would not say whether the Mercury Global project was still interested in placing small payloads on commercial satellites. Canada is already taking part in the U.S. Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite system now being deployed. Canada’s Defence Department has budgeted 535 million Canadian dollars for that project.